Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Of course, given a choice, one would prefer to only mix with others of one's own class, but circumstances sometimes compel us to do things we never thought we would.  That is the attitude of Mrs. Wray, a widow living with her 20-something daughter Frances in post-WWI London in The Paying Guests.  Her two sons were killed in the war and her husband died soon afterwards.  Far from being well-off, Frances and her mother are stunned to discover that her father has left them pretty much destitute.  The only real asset they have is the large house they live in.  After scrimping and getting by as frugally as possible, they finally come to the conclusion that they'll have to take in lodgers to make ends meet.

Enter Lillian and Leonard Barber.  They are a cheerful young couple who take the upstairs rooms in the Wray household (except that Frances also has her bedroom upstairs, so there is inevitable interaction between her and the Barbers).  Of course, the Barbers are the "clerk class" and Mrs. Wray, while cordial, continues to feel herself superior.  Leonard works for an insurance firm and is out working most days, while Lillian is left behind to keep house and "decorate" (she has a love of everything frilly and frivolous).  Mrs. Wray occasionally ventures out for "charity work" or to visit neighbors, and poor Frances spends her days doing all the drudge work at home (a fact her mother is terribly embarrassed the neighbors might discover, but not to the extent that might induce her to help her daughter out).

Frances, it turns out, is a bit of a radical.  Her one friend, Christina, is involved in political issues and at one point the two women were involved in an "inappropriate" (according to Frances's parents) relationship.  Christina wanted Frances to leave her parents so they could move in together, but Frances was unable to make the break.  Christina now lives with another woman, but Frances visits her from time to time.

Eventually, being left alone together for long periods of time, Frances and Lillian also become involved in a relationship. They enjoy the secretiveness of it, sneaking around when Leonard and Mrs. Wray are out.  They even begin to discuss how they could run away and have a life together.  The two women are seriously considering this course of action (even though it would cause a tremendous scandal) when Lillian discovers she's pregnant.  This sets in motion a chain of events that will have a terrible impact on everyone's lives.  A crime is committed, and the two women must work together to cover it up, while at the same time trying not to turn on each other in their panic and despair.

I really enjoyed the book, even though it seemed to me nothing really happened until at least half way through.  It's definitely the definition of a slow burn!  However, once the events get set into motion, it really is a page-turner as you try to figure out what will happen and if the two women will manage to come out of it with their freedom (and lives) intact.  I was mostly annoyed with the feeble Mrs. Wray, who didn't seem to have any medical issues, but nonetheless was apparently helpless -- depending on her daughter to do all the cooking, cleaning, shopping, bill-paying, etc. while she sat around being all haughty and judgmental. I guess this really emphasized the societal changes that happened in England after WWI, when class barriers were blurring, and formerly upper-class people came to the realization that they no longer had servants to do all their chores (well, the younger generation seemed to realize this, I don't think Mrs. Wray ever did).

All in all, this is an interesting story about the forbidden relationship between two women at a time of a great shift in societal attitudes.  The suspenseful aspect that takes over the second part of the book really made this a gripping novel.  I hope it will be made into a film soon, as most of Sarah Waters's other books have been.

Final verdict for The Paying Guests Four Gherkins, for being a thrilling look at the fallout from a forbidden love



Tuesday, February 23, 2016

We've all experienced it:  that moment when we do or say something that we wish we could take back.  Or just feeling as if everyone else has it together, while we are still trying to figure out the rules.  The book This is Awkward argues that these moments of unease and discomfort are necessary for us to grow by embracing our vulnerability.

Sammy Rhodes is a campus minister who has struggled with awkward moments his whole life.   From being caught looking at porn in college to watching his mother break into his father's house to get some dirt to use in a divorce case, Rhodes has had his share of awkward moments.  However, he's quick to point out that these moments happen to everyone and are part of being human.  Rather than hiding your uneasy moments (and the shame that will fester because of it), it's better to be vulnerable and embraced for who you are, warts and all.

The author illustrates many of his ideas with Biblical references and begins the book by stating that awkward moments are "invitations to know the grace of God."  He tackles subjects such as parenting, divorce, depression, porn, online addiction and donut devotion.  He shares many of his own struggles and personal stories that give show how he tackled some of the issues himself.

Rhodes has apparently been very popular on social media and this is his first book.  He intersperses sections in each chapter about how he must be crazy to think he can write a book, how he doesn't know how to get started, what he's doing/listening to in order to get the creative juices flowing, etc.  I'm not sure of the purpose of all of that I-don't-know-what-I'm-doing-but-here-goes fluff, other than filling up pages. Yes, that is also awkward to read, but a few instances (rather than over and over) would have sufficed!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of This is Awkward from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Japanese author Marie Kondo created a flurry of interest recently when she published her book "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up."  Now she's back with part two of the series, Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up.  Not only does she explain her "Kondori" method of tidying up your house (and by extension, your life), she also includes cute illustrations to show how to implement her suggestions.

The author has devoted herself to "the art of tidying" to such an extent that she is a sought-after consultant.  People who have tried and repeatedly failed to get their homes in order frequently call her in to get them on the right path.  She begins with the 6 rules of tidying:

1. Commit Yourself to Tidying
2. Imagine Your Ideal Lifestyle
3. Finish Discarding (to keep you from getting distracted as you store things instead of getting rid of them once and for all)
4. Tidy By Category, Not Location (as in, gather every piece of clothing in the house into one big pile and start discarding)
5. Follow the Right Order
6. Ask Yourself if it Sparks Joy

The final rule is the one thing that the author returns to again and again.  She says you should keep absolutely nothing in your house that doesn't give you a little thrill when you see it or pick it up.  While this is an admirable goal, she also mentions her own experiences in, for instance, throwing out a hammer and screwdriver that didn't "spark joy" and then having to use (and damage) some of her joyful possessions -- such as using a frying pan to hammer a nail and a ruler to turn a screw.  Even so, her mantra is "It might come in handy is taboo."

She includes a "Tidying Encyclopedia" which takes various categories (clothing, papers, miscellaneous, etc.) and shows with little cartoon drawings how to fold, store and organize these items.  If you aren't inspired enough by her detailed instructions, at the end of the book she discusses the wonderful changes that will occur in your life once your home and possessions are in order.  All in all, this is an inspiring, if somewhat radical, look at how to start tidying and organizing your things so that you have more time to focus on what sparks joy in your life.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Spark Joy from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

While we often celebrate the success of people who manage to "make it" in their chosen fields, sometimes the stories of how they got there can be heartbreaking.  The book Walk to Beautiful by singer Jimmy Wayne, is equal parts inspirational and devastating.  Although he has found success as a country music singer, his horrific childhood of abuse, neglect and abandonment at the hands of his bipolar mother naturally impacted his life. After spending part of his childhood in the foster care system, he decided that as a successful adult, he needed to do something to help those young people who "age out" of the foster care system and have few resources to turn to for help or guidance.

Jimmy Wayne Barber and his older sister grew up with an erratic single mother.  Although his mother had a lot of men in her life, she never was interested in staying long with the ones who treated her well.  Instead, she moved her children into ramshackle houses in the worst part of town, and invited in all the alcoholics and drug addicts she came across to feel free to stay as long as they wanted.  Not surprisingly, Jimmy and his sister regularly witnessed violence, as well as being hungry and neglected.  His mother's moods swung wildly between substance abuse and violent religious fundamentalism, beating the children when they mispronounced words as she forced them to read Biblical verses aloud.   Occasionally, his mother would spend time in jail or a psychiatric facility and the children would be placed in foster care, but she would soon retrieve them and the cycle would begin again.  Eventually, his mother married yet another stepfather, this one violently unstable.  After the man had shot a woman during an argument, Jimmy, his mother and stepfather fled, living out of their car.  In Florida, Jimmy's mother abandoned him, aged 13, at a bus station and told him to get a bus to his sister's house.  His 14 year old sister had been married the previous year.  Although Jimmy was eventually reunited with his mother, she soon placed him in a group home.

There followed years of group homes, running away, being homeless and brief periods of living back with his mother.  Jimmy did finally find a stable home with Bea and Russell Costner, an elderly couple who forced him to cut his hair and attend church (which he readily agreed to do).  Russell soon passed away, but Jimmy continued to live with Bea, eventually earning a degree in corrections.  It was while he was living in the first stable environment of his life that he began writing songs and playing guitar.  Eventually, he moved to Nashville and embarked on his songwriting and performing career.

On January 1, 2010, Jimmy began a project to walk the 1700 miles from Nashville, TN to Phoenix, AZ to call attention to the plight of children who become too old for the foster care system. He called his walk "Meet Me Halfway." The last 60 miles of his trip were made with a broken foot.  His walk gained a lot of publicity and he was able to help change the laws in several states so that foster children can be cared for up to age 21.

The book was very inspirational.  It was terrible to read about the awful childhood Jimmy endured, but very uplifting to see how far he's come and to read about how he's used his celebrity to help others.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Walk to Beautiful from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review

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I'm a librarian who is interested in all things British. I try to visit London as often as possible, and am always planning my next trip. I lived in Sweden for a few years with my Swedish husband, so the occasional Swedish reference may occur . . .

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